The intimate scale of this performance serves as a reminder that Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido & Aeneas was conceived not for a grand theatre but for the “gentlewomen” who boarded at an artistically sophisticated school in Chelsea.
Armonico Consort’s orchestra is a compact ensemble of two violins, viola, cello, double bass and theorbo, demonstrating through lithe, colourful, tastefully phrased and dynamically astute playing that that is really all you need.
Many of us were brought up on the English Chamber Orchestra’s 1962 recording conducted by Anthony Lewis, with Thurston Dart on the harpsichord and with the incomparable team of Janet Baker and Raimund Herincx as the star-crossed lovers. Their captivating performance is still available on Decca Legends, and it is a disc to which I return again and again. But modern thinking brings different interpretative ideas, and this new recording directed by Christopher Monks certainly lacks nothing in humanity, poignancy and vitality.
The pacing is cunningly wrought, combining the 41 separate numbers into a cohesive whole while giving due attention to the contrasts of dramatic tempo and emotional content that lend the 50-minute opera such enlivening spirit and tragic intensity. There is a particularly apt piece of musical characterisation in the Act 1 chorus Cupid only Throws the Dart, where the voices pick out the notes and words with prickly point, but that is but one instance where this performance responds so instinctively to Nahum Tate’s text and Purcell’s music.